Chinese cosmetic and apparel companies that once operated in obscurity are now making a real name for themselves, at least among domestic consumers, who see brands like Li-Ning and Bosideng as providing both quality and style.
BEIJING — It's September 2018, and New York Fashion Week is in full swing. Among the shows put on by prominent fashion houses, "Chinese Day," organized by the e-commerce platform Tmall, makes a particularly big impact. And what really has people talking is the bold collection launched that day by Li-Ning, an unknown Chinese sportswear brand.
The company, founded by Olympic gold-medal gymnast Li-Ning, actually dates back to 1990. And yet, for most of its history, the brand limited itself to unimaginative lines of sneakers and sportswear.
"It used to be that people would buy Li-Ning when they could not afford Nike or Adidas,'' Dao Nguyen, founder of the Essenzia consulting firm, recalls.
All of that changed after New York Fashion Week.
Li-Ning isn't the only Chinese brand to shift course in that way. Several other companies are also revolutionizing the universe of fashion and beauty right now in the so-called Middle Kingdom.
Once synonymous with cheap, poor quality, Made in China has undergone a striking transformation in the past last years, moving upmarket and gaining popularity among the 1.4 billion people inhabiting this huge country.
''This phenomenon began a dozen years ago, with the arrival of Chinese creators such as Masha ma, Huishan Zhang or Angel Chen, graduates of the top fashion schools in Paris, London and New York,'' explains Babette Radclyffe-Thomas, a Chinese fashion specialist.
After working with Western designers, they went back home to built their own labels. It took a while for the shift to really take root. Chinese brands did not reach the mass market until 2018. But what they did have was geographic proximity to the production chains that turned China into the world's factory.
''They were able to absorb the expertise and workforce gravitating around the manufacturing sector which developed in the delta of the Pearls river, in the south of the country,'' says Rui Ma, an expert on Chinese start-ups.
Some of these brands initially produced goods for Western clients before launching their own line. An example is Bosideng, which was founded on the mid 1970s and produced parkas for Adidas and The North Face. But starting about 10 years ago, the company began promoting its own luxury parkas.
''These suppliers learned by observing what their clients and other regional factories were doing and drew their inspiration from them to create their own collections,'' explains Mark Tanner, founder of the consulting agency China Skinny.
'Dual circulation' is one of Xi's favorite expressions.
The improvement in quality of Chinese brands fits in with the government's goal of wanting to promote domestic consumption in parallel to exports. The strategy is called ''dual circulation,'' and it has become one of President Xi Jinping's favorite expressions.
The tariffs war between Beijing and Washington has accelerated the process, encouraging China to move away from its dependency on Western goods.
Leading the charge are brands like Peacebird, Urban Revivo and Ochirly, which are frequently described as China's Zara or H&M. In fact, it was precisely after visiting a Zara store in Japan that Urban Revivo's founder, Li Mingguang, chose to replicate the Spanish chain in China, starting in the provinces in the middle of the country and in mid-sized cities along the coast line, where the company wouldn't have to face international competition.
Today, the brand owns 200 stores, and its sales have gone up an average of 50% every year since the company was founded in 2006.
One of the strengths of these companies is that they know to adapt to local tastes. As Babette Radclyffe-Thomas explains: "A Chinese cosmetics brand won't try to market a lipstick with purplish or blueish hues, because it wouldn't go well on an Asian skin."
Perfect Diary is a case in point. Created in 2016 by former staff of Procter & Gamble, the cosmetics group based their esthetic on the androgynous codes taking place in the world of video games and mangas, which are extremely popular among Chinese youth.
A visitor tries beauty products at the second China International Import Exposition in Shanghai — Photo: Zhangchuanqi/Xinhua/ZUMA
''Young people born in the 1980s and 1990s are proud of their Chinese legacy,'' says Rui Ma. "They do not hesitate anymore to display their patriotism and this frequently translates into buying goods produced locally.''
A study done by the Nielsen institute in 2019 shows that 68% of Chinese consumers prefer local brands to foreign ones. That's a complete shift compared to their parents' generation.
Pride and nostalgia
Blunders by some foreign fashion houses have also fed this nationalism and sparked a defensive feeling of pride towards local brands. ''Dolce & Gabbana lost all credibility in China following an advertising campaign showing a Chinese model eating a pizza and spaghetti with chopsticks,'' Dao Nguyen explains.
Blunders by some foreign fashion houses have sparked a defensive feeling of pride towards local brands.
In 2018, Gap found itself in hot water for a shirt that featured a map of China but that didn't include Taiwan and a part of Tibet. More recently, H&M, Nike, Adidas, Burberry and Converse all faced boycotts in China after announcing they would stop using cotton produced in Xinjiang because of questions over forced labor risks. That, in turn, benefitted Chinese companies like Li-Ning and Anta Sports, whose shares exploded.
Typically, the trend in China is to look forward. There's a preference for modernity. Lately, though, young people have been embracing a retro, nostalgic kind of style, as epitomized by Li-Ning's 80s-looking sneakers. Other examples include the throw-back aluminium boxes that some candy companies have reintroduced.
Still, not every company has had success going retro. The French brand Balenciaga — in an obvious reference to the kitchy backdrops long used by Chinese photo studios — launched an ad campaign showing models posing in front of waterfalls and cherry-blossom trees. But consumers ended up feeling put off by the imagery.
Whereas some brands are looking to the past for inspiration, others are embracing the future, particularly in terms of new communications technology. Perfect Diary, for example, relies on a community strategy that involves attracting consumers through private discussion groups on WeChat messaging.
"They're hosted by an avatar called Xiao Wanzi, who exchanges makeup tips with the brand's fans, answers their questions and introduces them to exclusive products," Radclyffe-Thomas explains.
The strategy allows the company to collect precious data on customer preferences and buying habits. This is coupled with a sophisticated, real-time analysis of the products performing the best online.
"These brands make extensive use of the data available to them," says Tanner. "They are constantly expanding their assortment based on current trends, testing and then removing from sale the goods that have not been successful."
Some brands introduce more than 10,000 new products each month.
Despite their domestic success, Chinese fashion and beauty companies still struggle to make their mark abroad. A good example is Bosideng, which opened a store in London and another in New York. But have now closed.
"The luxury-down jacket market was saturated and they were unable to compete with more established brands such as Moncler," says Radclyffe-Thomas.
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